‘Sister Act, The Musical’: Old habits die hard

Patina Miller in "Sister Act, The Musical" - Photo courtesy of Joan Marcus

Sister Act, the new musical playing the Broadway Theatre in New York City, is a rousing theatrical creation that builds off the original movie starring Whoopi Goldberg. The results are enjoyable, though not terribly groundbreaking. For the Rialto, Sister Act is an adrenaline shot in the arm. How can one go wrong with dancing and singing nuns?

The story surrounds Deloris van Cartier (the excellent Patina Miller) as she fights for some exposure in the cabarets of Philadelphia’s nightlife scene, circa 1970s (aka disco heaven). Deloris sings like the best of them, including her idol Donna Summer, but the dream all comes crashing down when she witnesses a murder in the back alley behind a club. The man holding the gun is none other than criminal big shot, Curtis Jackson (Kingsley Leggs), and he intends to keep Deloris’s mouth shut forever.

Victoria Clark in "Sister Act, The Musical" - Photo courtesy of Joan Marcus

Police officer Eddie Souther (Chester Gregory) reasons that the only way to keep Deloris safe is to hide her in the most unlikely of places: a convent overseen by a strict Mother Superior (the always impressive Victoria Clark). While learning the ways of the prayerful, contemplative sisters, Deloris and her street-smart ways rub off a little. Her disco sexiness enlivens the chaste women with a sense of self-importance. Her hotshot singing also invigorates the chorus and may even save the local parish from going belly-up. All this while the bad guys are still lurking around, checking to see where Deloris may be hiding out.

Admittedly, the premise is absurd, and perhaps that is why Sister Act works better as a musical on Broadway than it ever did on film. Mixing the plot up with several musical numbers keeps the pace flying by. The cast, especially Miller and Clark, seem to come alive on stage. This is that rare theatrical phenomenon: a second-rate musical given a first-rate production.

Miller is the star of the show. Her singing is incredible to behold, and the many second-act numbers that promise to bring down the roof are all anchored by her strong belting. Clark finds some nice intimate moments as well, grounding the musical in as much reality as possible.

Alan Menken’s songs, all dripping with 1970s pastiche and featuring Glenn Slater’s lyrics, are tuneful and memorable. It’s hard not to hum the rhythms on the way out of the theater (particularly “Take Me to Heaven”).

All is not perfect. The book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner, with additional material from Douglas Carter Beane, is passable, relying on too many one-liners and slowing the pace of the mile-a-minute proceedings. Director Jerry Zaks does his best to keep everything flowing and freeing. Anthony Van Laast works nicely with the choreography, though the dancing doesn’t come alive until the sisters break from their strict ways toward the end.

The most disappointing feature is the set, designed by Klara Zieglerova. Again, like the choreography, the voluminous stage of the Broadway Theatre doesn’t come alive until the second act. When Deloris is first making her way into the convent, there is too much bareness with not enough ornamentation. By the end, it’s all sequins and stained glass.

Perhaps that is the difficulty of displaying a soup-to-nuts Sister Act musical. The going doesn’t get going until the habits start flying and the nuns start jumping. Along those lines, this new mega-musical takes a while to finds its feet.

But when it does, oh how those feet rollick.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
  • Sister Act

  • Directed by Jerry Zaks

  • Book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner, with additional material from Douglas Carter Beane

  • Music by Alan Menken, with lyrics by Glenn Slater

  • Choreography by Anthony Van Laast

  • Set Design by Klara Zieglerova

  • Playing at the Broadway Theatre at 1681 Broadway, between 52nd and 53rd streets

  • Click here for more information. Tickets are $51.50-$201.50, with discounts available (try www.BroadwayBox.com or the TKTS booth in Times Square).

  • Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes

  • Bubble score: 3 out of 4

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications.

E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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